Most of my attempts at making games have been through other games. I bought a copy of WarioWare D.I.Y. on the DS to hone my design skills making small things. I purchased Super Mario Maker 2 and made one level that I have shared with no one. I’ve fiddled with game building tools in Warcraft 3 and Portal 2. I’ve spent a lot of time making little but none of it has really lasted. My skills have been lost to the changing games landscape and the frivolity of my own whim.
With this background, Game Builder Garage instantly caught my curiosity. Nintendo’s latest foray into accessible game making tools, Game Builder Garage is split between a set of interactive tutorials, helping you make things like a basic racing game or a small 3D platformer, and a free programming mode. You “code” by stringing together preprogrammed “nodons.” Attach a button press nodon to a person nodon to make it jump. Attach a number nodon to a car nodon to make the car accelerate. These relationships can stretch from the simple to the complex. However, the game makes it feel comfortable. Each nodon has a friendly personality and the game beeps, boops, and purrs as you thread its pieces together.
The intent is explicitly to help older kids understand the logic of coding. This means that the logic needed to, for example, create AI, is not intuitive. Well, at least it is not intuitive for me. This is not like Mario Maker, where enemies and characters have a prebuilt selection of behaviors to play around, or like Warioware D.I.Y., where the limited scope of the project makes the light programming straightforward. The possibility space is as wide as your problem solving skills. This means that you have to translate something as seemingly simple as making a car drive itself into numbers and bits.
However, this is far from a weakness; it’s actually one of the game’s core strengths. While Game Builder Garage’s duty is to simplify and streamline the messy process of coding, it leaves intact a lot of the core fundamentals. The structure of the tutorials reminded me of the dozens of computer science assignments I did in college. My favorite part of the game are the puzzling “checkpoints.” In between lessons, the game offers up little puzzles using what you learned from making the last game. It requires that you fiddle with minute variables. It is always a delight to discover that you do understand something beyond the walls of step by step instruction. Fittingly, a lot of the “play” is experimenting with multiple functions and seeing how they line up, interact, or mess up your intentions. AND and NOT functions even show up. While it is plainly not too robust, Game Builder Garage does create a readable way of coding a game. It’s easy to see how getting familiar with the toolset here would let you make something elsewhere, with different tools.
Therein, though, is also the problem. Whatever you make using the tool is, of course, stuck in Nintendo’s own ecosystem. Game Builder Garage is yet another example of a robust tool that is ultimately self-serving. Whatever inventive solutions to problems I come up with, whatever ideas I implement, what art I create, I can only carry the spirit of those things to something else. I can’t have someone else play my game unless they also own the tools. When I called the game accessible earlier, I did not mean accessible financially or accessible for the disabled. There are no settings to adjust font size or any similar means of changing the game’s presentation. Furthermore, the idea of using this as a beginner’s learning tool at a school or in a communal setting is absurd. The investment of a Switch plus the game itself is simply too high. It’s a bit hard to imagine who exactly the game is for. Someone who already owns a Switch, is uninterested in traditional programming or even more accessible tools, and also wants to play around with this, is something of a tall order.
Whatever allure remains is simply seeing what you can do with this new thing Nintendo made. Therein the game also shows its limitations. All the tutorials that the game moves you through—a mystery room, a racing game, a platformer—bear the familiar markers of Nintendo games. The game explicitly invites comparisons to Nintendo’s classic titles. It is practically begging you to make recreations rather than anything truly original. The tools themselves might allow for something more flexible, but the aesthetic of the game does not.
The few things I made in all those earlier games I mentioned above are just gone. Generously, they are floating on a cartridge or a server somewhere. Game Builder Garage is destined to the same fate. It’s an engaging and inventive novelty, but by its nature it is hostile to active meaning. It is okay for things to die, to vanish. However, I want them to end on my terms, not because a company didn’t care to make it last. During my time on the internet, I’ve gathered together a ton of game making tools. On the list are things for making RPGs or visual novels, coding helpers, and narrative idea generators. I’m sure my little list is remarkably incomplete, but still represents a diverse set of people interested in helping other people make art, often for free.
Beneath the undeniably charming exterior of Game Builder Garage is a conservative institution. Nintendo is interested in making it so you cannot imagine anything outside of it. Any of its tools that democratize creativity reflect its haphazard desire to consume its output. Of course, making something outside of that requires work. It requires forsaking the slick and easy tutorializing of a program for the messy labor of teaching each other. It requires that we look for ourselves, stumble, experiment, fail, and, worse, show our failure to others. That mess is still far more human, far more rewarding than any closed ecosystem could claim to be.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.